Wednesday, 11 September 2013

VERDI'S LA TRAVIATA / Singapore Lyric Opera / Review

Singapore Lyric Opera
Esplanade Theatre
Monday (9 September 2013)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 11 September 2013 with the title "Vibrant Verdi in troubling times".

These must be troubling times for Western opera in Singapore. The Singapore Lyric Opera (SLO) is caught in a Catch-22 situation. Due to its small annual budget and limited funding, miniscule compared to the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO), it is constrained to just two major productions a year.

When it mounts operas that are less familiar or popular, such as Don Giovanni and Manon Lescaut last year, it plays to small houses and a fiscal deficit. Forced to bring in the revenue and justify its existence, it goes through an ever-perpetuating cycle of warhorses, which invariably involve these six operas – La Traviata, La Boheme, Carmen, Tosca, Madama Butterfly and The Magic Flute.

The cycle has just been completed, and is ready to begin again. Is this healthy for the cultivation of the artform and its appreciation? What happened to experimentation and breaking new ground? Does anyone remember the days when SLO took on Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Verdi’s Macbeth, Gounod’s Faust or even Leong Yoon Pin’s Bunga Mawar?

By all accounts, this year has been an ultra-conservative one, which opened with Puccini’s Madama Butterfly to make up for the adventures of 2012 and 2011 (which had a splendid Salome). And thanks to the Verdi bicentenary, La Traviata has been brought out again, in expense of first time productions of Othello, The Force of Destiny, The Masked Ball or Aida. Did anyone mention this is the year of Richard Wagner and Benjamin Britten too?

To SLO’s credit, what it accomplishes with so little money borders on miraculous, the artistic equivalent of feeding five thousand with two fish and three loaves of bread. Even if the usual suspects were rounded up for the international cast of Traviata, one could be grateful that this was no tired rerun.

A double-take was needed to ascertain that the minx in red seated on the grand piano (above) when the curtain rose was indeed soprano Nancy Yuen in the lead role of Violetta Valery. Kudos to her make-up artist and hair stylist for making her look the part of a pill-popping, alcohol-swilling and heavily botoxed demimondaine opposite Japanese tenor Kota Murakami’s youthful Alfredo (below).

Although her actual age is an industry secret, Yuen is ageless in this role, whipping off the coloratura runs of Ah, fors’e lui… Sempre libera effortlessly and with much natural flair. Her range of expressions grew exponentially, not least in the moving Second Act exchange with Korean baritone Song Kee Chang’s Germont. By the final scene complete with a real hospital bed, she had been aged irremediably but her delivery of Addio del passato and the tender duet Parigi o cara with Murakami held the greatest poignancy.

A technological Traviata, updated to the present.

Director Stephen Barlow had the setting updated to the present, with the cast toting cell-phones, iPads and headphones, and Alfredo attired in t-shirt, jeans and sneakers. There were anachronistic references to louis as currency and carriages as transport, as in the original libretto, but these were minor quirks. Even consumption was not mentioned (Violetta did not cough even once); thus “this disease” might be presumed as HIV. The sets were kept simple, except for fussy screen projections that were too literal (falling pills, playing cards and the Eiffel Tower) or plain barmy (red blood cells whenever “this disease” was mentioned).

The supporting cast was strong, including Lemuel dela Cruz (Gastone), Anna Koor (Flora), Tan Sin Sim (Annina) and Brent Allcock (Douphol), and the SLO Chorus augmented by Filipino singers injected their scenes with vitality and realism. The SLO Orchestra conducted by SSO Associate Conductor Joshua Kangming Tan accompanied with great sensitivity and responsiveness, and has become the pride of the musical theatre scene.

A real hospital bed dominated the final scene.

This production could easily have been felled by over-predictability, but familiarity was not translated into the run of the mill. That is the pride of the SLO. Now someone high up in the National Arts Council needs to have a heart-to-heart talk with opera practitioners about the future of opera in Singapore and possibility of increased funding. SLO can become as big as the SSO, but all it needs is that extra push and lots more cash. 

All photographs by courtesy of Singapore Lyric Opera.

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